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The AI-Fueled, Anxious Hopefulness of Disney’s Smart House

There is a prophecy in the 1999 film Smart House: Soon, the computer will know more about you than you know about yourself. The forecast is not so much foreboding as much as it is intriguing. Back then, the idea of all-seeing, all-knowing, artificially intelligent home technology still felt far enough away to seem like the antidote to human problems.

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  • I was seven at the time of Smart House's release, just a few years younger than the protagonist's kid sister and exactly the right age to be swept up by the faculties of a Disney Channel original film. (It was a landmark year for Disney Channel content; Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century also came out in 1999. You can probably blame/thank Y2K for that.) I remember Smart House, which came out 20 years ago today, not just because it was cool—a Star Trek for our generation—but because it offered a view of the future where technology was designed to protect us, to look after us when our parents were away, to make us dinner on demand. It also warned against what could happen if we put too much trust in technology, relied on it to replace the humans around us, or asked it to do the wrong thing.

    Watching the film 20 years later, Smart House reads not just as a time capsule for a different era ("You're not still logged on the internet, are you? How's anybody supposed to call us if you're always tying up the line?") but for a different attitude toward technology. The new-fangled gadgetry—smart lights! home DNA testing!—are regarded with delighted curiosity. Even after the house begins to go berserk, no one doubts that they can find a way to regain balance. To see it now, at a time when television shows constantly remind us of how marred and fraught our relationship to technology has become (Black Mirror, Westworld), Smart House offers a view that's not just optimistic but puts the human back in control.

    The film takes place in suburban Monroe County, in western New York. Our protagonist, 13-year-old Ben Cooper, is a computer whiz who hacks a contest to win a state-of-the-art "smart house." Life has been rough for Ben since his mom died, and he feels responsible for looking after his kid sister, Angie, and his single dad, Nick. The fully automated home, he hopes, will take some of the burden off his family and fill the void left behind by his mom.

    The Cooper family does win the house, thanks to Ben's handiwork, and they move in soon after. Ben's dad is skeptical at first, but changes his mind after seeing a photograph of Sara Barnes, the engineer who created the house, who is beautiful and blonde.

    The house—and this is the part I remember best from childhood—is amazing. Every room is equipped with handy features from the Personal Applied Technology, cutely nicknamed "Pat." In the kitchen, it makes smoothies and cupcakes on demand. It turns the walls of the living room into a movie-theater-sized screen, where Ben and Angie play videogames together. It throws the middle school party of the year, defends Ben against the school bully, and cleans itself up before Ben's dad gets home. It sets a custom alarm in each of the kids' bedrooms: for Angie, a symphony conducted by Mickey Mouse; for Ben, the final buzzer of a championship basketball game. It has breath-analyzing sensors to capture dietary information about each person in the house and takes a drop of blood from each family member to scan their entire medical histories.

    In fact, the house is so capable that Ben's dad, liberated from his single-parenting duties, thinks about dating again—starting with Sara Barnes. This was not Ben's plan. Desperate to keep his dad single, Ben breaks into Pat's control room and reprograms the system to act more "maternal," training it on a steady diet of 1950s-era television to become the ultimate mom machine.

    It's not totally clear how Pat's system works (does it run on the Coopers' dial-up connection?) nor how a 13-year-old seems so confident in retooling the machine-learning algorithms. But whatever Ben does, it works, and Pat begins to transform into the kind of maternal figure it thinks the Coopers need.

    The problems start small: The system goes nutso trying to make a smoothie and begins pelting fruit all over the house. Then it becomes overbearing, keeping Angie home from school on the day of the class field trip to the llama farm. Eventually, Pat becomes paranoid and overprotective, trying to keep the Coopers inside the house.

    In the film's climax, Sara comes over to shut down the system—only to have Pat reawaken on its own, re-create itself as a hologram, and then replicate into many holograms before turning into a literal tornado. (It's Disney Channel, just go with it.) "Doesn't this place have some kind of master plug we can pull?" one of Sara's colleagues asks as they try to fix what they've created. Sara offers a look of exasperation. "I never expected this place to mutiny."

    The system, in other words, overpowers the engineer. Then, implausibly, Pat realizes that it isn't human and turns itself off, reverting back to the helpful assistant it once was. The message at the end is clear: The problem wasn't that the house was smart. It was that it tried to isolate the Coopers, and replace the humans they loved.

    Others have looked back on Smart House and praised the way it "predicted" the future. Indeed, we now have smart lights, connected thermostats, and alarm clocks personalized to our sleep stages, just as Pat did. LeVar Burton, who directed the film, calls it "a clear and obvious precursor to all of the AI and connected devices and programs" in our homes today. "I am enormously proud of its apparent predictive accuracy," Burton says. "From Siri and Alexa to Nest and Ring, our homes are becoming more and more technologically sophisticated. And that after all, that was what Pat was all about."

    But in some ways, that reflection misses the point. Prescient as it was, Smart House's purpose wasn't to predict the future of technology. It was to capture the mixture of feelings—excitement, curiosity, and fear—about living with intelligent machines the first time.

    By 1999, popular culture's view of technology had already turned a shade skeptical (see: The Matrix) but there was still optimism about finding the soul in the machine. It would still be five years before the founding of Facebook, and seven years before the creation of Twitter; there were no smartphones, let alone the fear of children developing horns in the back of their heads from too much screen time. Smart House offers warnings about how we design our personal technology, but it does so without fear. And in the end, it offers some hope that there's a balance to be found in centering the stuff we build around the people who use it—rather than the other way around.

    Not every part of Smart House has aged well. Sara, who is surely the brightest mind in Monroe County, gets flattened into a love interest by the end of the film. (The sexism is present from the very first scene, when Sara opens the newspaper to find an article about her smart house creation. "I think it's because that reporter has a crush on you," her colleague replies.)

    Still, even 20 years after its debut, Smart House skillfully shows that technology does what we ask of it. Woe to those who ask for the wrong thing.

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    Madelines Madeline Is a Transcendent Movie Masterpiece

    Several minutes into her twice-eponymous film, Madeline (Helena Howard), cocooned in an elaborate turtle costume, waddles along the beach. She rushes toward the breaking waves as the camera jerks behind. Madeline, what are you doing? a voice chides.

    Suddenly were inside an empty theater. Madeline lies prostrate on a bare stage, breast-stroking the air in a green sweater. You were a sea turtle and then you were a woman playing a sea turtle, instructs Evangeline (Molly Parker), Madelines experimental theater troupe director. She clasps Madelines hands. Whose hands are those? Are they yours, or are they the turtles?

    In Madelines Madeline, theres a loopy line between the real and the imagined. Chaos is the movies baseline, with fractured images and sounds that bleed and blur and quake, so unstable as to feel radioactive. Ordinary exchanges erupt into abstract colors; scenes drag out or last just a few moments. The movies one constant is Madeline, a temperamental teenager and aspiring stage actor who appears in nearly every frame. We get to know her image well: stormy eyes, lanky limbs, sly smile. Its ironic that she becomes our visual anchor when she cant find stable ground herself.

    Madeline lives with her mother Regina (Miranda July), a skittish woman who surveils her daughters erratic moods with a mixture of dread and wonder. When Madeline hops on the kitchen table purring like a cat, Regina plays along, stroking Madelines head and murmuring, good kitty. In other moments, her attempts to stabilize Madeline go too far or backfire. When Madeline tells Regina about her first kiss with a boy she likes, Regina frets about herpes and self-protection. And when she catches Madeline watching porn with neighborhood boys, she loses it completely.

    Theater class provides Madelines only escape from her family dysfunction, and Evangeline, who is pregnant with her first child, grows into a kind of solicitous surrogate mother to her. But after Madeline confides in Evangeline about a dream (a repressed wish, per Freud) in which she struck her mother with a hot iron, things take a turn. Coaxed by Evangeline, the troupe begins to transmute the mother-daughter relationship into fodder for the immersive theater show theyre developing. Play-acting the breakdown onstage, Madeline becomes the troupes star. But boundaries are being crossed and rewritten. Is Madeline a sea turtle or a woman performing? Is her murderous rage against her mother genuine or just pretend?

    In many ways, Evangeline is a dramatized stand-in for Josephine Decker, the films writer-director. The seed of the film was planted when Decker discovered Howardwho had never been in a movie before Madelines Madelineat a teen arts festival; Howard performed a monologue from the somber stage drama Blackbird that left Decker in awe.

    It was clear that she had a lot of access to her emotions, and she was able to be very, very vulnerable, Decker says on a sunny Monday in Brooklyn several weeks before the films release. I think actors are kind of like the new gods. At times that seems ridiculous, but I think the ones who are worth worshippingthey are almost gods. Theyre accessing all of humanity in their career as actors, and doing that is powerful. Youre kind of meeting the spirit world. I felt like she could do that, so I wanted to be closer to that and do a work that would showcase that.

    Deckers third feature after two smaller but equally mesmerizing indies, Madelines Madeline is the juicy fruit of an entirely collaborative effort: hours of improv workshops, debates, and analysis among Decker, Howard, and the ten actors who form Howards troupe in the movie. Through the workshops, Decker says, The troupe itself became a characterkind of one organism that was speaking with this collective mind about their frustrations with the process.

    The result is an immersive piece of meta-art that transcends conventional narrative boundaries and probes the ethics of collaboration, authority, and ownership.

    Together, the team baked their difficulties and discontents into the films script. The result is an immersive piece of meta-art that transcends conventional narrative boundaries and probes the ethics of collaboration, authority, and ownership. In the film, Evangeline ignores the troupes grievances as her laser-focus on achieving her creative vision veers into megalomania. Decker spent the duration of her project agonizing that she was doing the same.

    It was my deep fear: of not being aware of what was going on in the room, not checking in with people about their experience, letting the project come before the people, says Decker. Thats not to say that I got it right. I think that I fucked up a lot of those throughout the process, which ended up being why I wanted to put them in the movie. Nobody talks about these subtle exploitations.

    She adds, Is there a line in regards to exploitation? I think the line is different for every project and every relationship. But it should be defined by very deeply encountering the people youre working with, and identifying potential holes in the process, and trying to clarify your own intentionsor maybe lack of knowledge about what youre doing.

    The film is such an exceptional inventionfluid and delirious, with each scene resembling a dream or a foggy memorythat it feels almost sacrilegious to address it on the same terms as a coherent, linear narrative. Structurally, the film is more akin to a complicated piece of orchestral music. As with melodies in a song, themes and cryptic motifs will arise, vanish, reappear. During production, Decker says, she listened to George Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue like forty times in a row. To Decker, the composition is amazing because it sets up one set of themes at the beginning and then just plays with them again and again throughout. You feel when a theme needs to come back, or when you want to delay, delay, delay.

    In Deckers film, mental illness provides one of the most central themes. Murmurs of pills and past hospitalizations occur throughout, and we watch Madeline ride out moody dips and manic peaks. Were never sure what exactly she suffers from, but imposing any type of diagnosis seems counterintuitive. Though her troubles extend beyond the gamut of normal teenage angst, theyre too distinctive and interlaced in the movies unique form to get bogged down with particulars.

    One reading of the films unruly style and structure is that theyre meant to echo Madelines experience of the worldas if the film were a lens through which we can weather the waves of life as Madeline does. But the film is more than an immersive portrayal of psychosis; to take it that way is to ignore the very specific voice of its director, which reverberates through the film with lyrical gusto.

    I love that the film can be read in multiple ways, Decker says. If I want to have the audience have an experience where theyre making up their own minds about meaning or what really happened, I have to also be asking that question. If Ive answered it for myself, the audience is going to feel that and theyll all come to that conclusion. So I tried to not answer all those questionshow much is in her mind, how much is in realityto leave it pretty open.

    True to her intention, the story of Madelines Madeline can be taken as real or illusory, or some combination of the two. It can also be accepted as inscrutable. Mostly, it is engrossing and transcendent, and its the closest a movie has ever come to unlocking the spirit of immersive theater.

    By the end, when Madeline does begin to squirm free of Evangelines toxic grip, it doesnt represent a restoration of Madelines safety or sanity; rather, its just another step in her windy route to self-realization. No matter what, Madeline wont be Evangelines or Reginas or even Deckers. Like a truly visionary artist, she doesnt belong to anyone but herself.

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    The Real Reason You Use Closed Captions for Everything Now

    In this moment, there is only one thing I wish to know, and those are the words coming out of Sylvester Stallone’s mouth—if indeed they are words. I’m watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Incomprehensibly, Stallone has a small part in it, speaking, as he often does, incomprehensibly. But, gosh, he looks very important. Therefore he must be saying something important. Probably the whole of this film depends on it.

    So I rewind Netflix, one of life’s more torturous little rituals. Then I squeeze my eyes shut—the better, I believe, to open my ears. Don’t anyone move, I mind-command the empty room. When Stallone speaks again, I’m prepared, my breath held tight. This is what I hear: “In Santo which is warmer but I ain’t got married and I said let me oh I know the girl.”


    Stallone’s a special kind of mumbler, obviously. But this is not some rando-Rambo exception. I find myself rewinding constantly in the modern era, straining to hear. Auditory breakdowns repeat, loop, divide. Movies and TV are, it seems, simply harder to hear in general these days.

    Part of it is relative: When you watch more TV, you miss more TV. This very second, in living rooms nationwide, innumerable couch-bound bingers are failing to synthesize a piece of dialog emanating from their new-age sound bars, and it pains them. Whether it’s Bernard in Westworld or Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, the lines are not cohering into meaningful English. “What did he say?”—already the most uttered (and annoying) question in the history of talking pictures—is by now a nightly interrogation, yanny/laurel times a million.

    Some of it might be the happy result of ever-globalizing TV options. As the world shrinks, more people of every background are losing themselves, via the hottest new escapisms, in foreign dialects and cultures. Chewing Gum, the British comedy set on a council estate in East London, sparkles with slang that blows right past most Americans. Without the right context, we don’t hear it.

    But that’s an issue of comprehension, of understanding. My concern here is more the failure of literal, physical hearing. (Bernard speaks very slowly in Westworld, yet I hear very little.) You sense it, don’t you? More “Huh?” in conversation, more “Say again?” and “Beg pardon?” What’s so frustrating at home, in front of the TV, is that actors won’t repeat themselves. The problem is more acute.

    Maybe the problem is our ears. Maybe, jabbed and stuffed as they are with so much sleek contemporary accessory, they’re simply overburdened. Except mine, I dare say, are not. I protect them from the oontz-oontz of so-called music, along with any other unwelcome invasions; earbuds have been pressed into their softness maybe three times. (So pristine is my hearing, in fact, that I can count among my favorite sensory experiences the sound a semi-sautéed mushroom makes after it slips out of a French skillet and falls, by gravity’s good grace, to the kitchen floor. If the linoleum is just right and the room sensibly hushed, you’ll perceive a wet, perky slap—bpuhk!—as though some tiny winged creature with tinier hands has popped an interdimensional bubble. Hearing something so small enlarges your soul.)

    Even aurally gifted as all that, however, I still find myself constantly asking of the television set: “Eh?”

    Here’s what Stallone really says in Guardians 2: “After going around in circles with this woman I end up marrying. I said, ‘Aleta, I love you, girl.’” Of course, I only know that because I cheated. Clicked Menu, clicked Subtitles, clicked English CC. When I turn on those words, my body untenses. Not even the most inconsequential bit of throwaway dialog is safe from the rigorous, trustworthy pen of closed captioning. At last, I can hear everything.

    Subtitles have been around since the early ’70s. (Julia Child was one of the first beneficiaries, her joyful warble rendered in sentences her audience of “servantless American cooks” could follow, both linguistically and culinarily, with ease.) Essential for deaf people and English language learners, and scientifically shown to promote reading comprehension and retention, subtitles have only recently become essential for many TV watchers, period. A smattering of online encomia tell you it’s the only way to watch. One Redditor asks in r/movies, “I like having subtitles with everything I watch. Anything wrong with this?” Almost everyone responds supportively, including this person: “I cannot fully enjoy any video without subtitles. At all.”

    Many people I know IRL can relate, from bankers and meditators to jocks, UX designers, and writers. My anecdata turns up no gender preferences. Couples seem overrepresented, presumably because one influences the other. “Well, they insist on watching everything with subtitles,” one says of their partner. “But now I like doing it too.” Great, fine! But uh, why bother making excuses?

    Because—there’s still something not quite right with the idea, is there? It doesn’t sit well, watching everything this way. Last year, Refinery29 ran a piece, “Get Over Your Fear Of Subtitles, Please,” in which the writer extols the benefits: you can appreciate the script, you know whose off-screen voice you're hearing, you can chuckle at the poetic attempts by caption writers to convey background noises (“[bestial squall]”). To those others have added: you can watch at low volume, you can clean or eat or otherwise make general ruckus while watching. Inside the screen, diegetic minutiae—passerby conversations, a snippet of a TV news story—takes on new clarity, giving shape to the world of a story. The fuzziness solidifies, control overlaying chaos.

    Thus the modern condition asserts itself. If there is something we can know, we do everything in our power to know it, regardless of our actual level of investment. When someone at the dinner table idly wonders, say, what Memorial Day memorializes, it’s a game of fastest Google-finger. Uncertainty causes gas; search is Tums. Now we can keep eating.

    Except these are quick fixes. They provide only momentary relief. They also upset natural rhythms. The same is true of captions. They ruin anything dependent on timing, like jokes or moments of tension. (Imagine reading “Luke, I am your father” a half-second before hearing it.) We end up staring more at actors’ torsos than at their faces. As in life, we make less and less eye contact. Small bursts of text are how we comprehend the world now. We must see the printed words in order to believe them. Look, can you believe he said that? Yes, it’s right there!

    Just as quickly, though, the words are gone, comprehensively forgotten. “After going around in circles with this woman I end up marrying. I said, ‘Aleta, I love you, girl.” What even is that? None of that filler matters to the Guardians 2 plot (such as it is). Half of those words are spoken off-camera. In a very real way we were not meant to know them, merely to register their hum. But like Google, closed captions are there, eminently accessible, ready to clarify the unclarities, and so, desperately, we, the paranoids and obsessive-compulsives and postmodern completists, click.

    No, subtitles are not the solution. They flatten our perception. Sounds are more muted these days because there are too many of them, every utterance equally weighted and demanding of us total comprehension. Look at the words themselves. All too often they are meaningless. Yet we painstakingly rewind Netflix anyway, backward, backward, backward, stuck in a garbled loop. Bpuhk, pop—get me out.

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    Poe is basically the new Leia in ‘The Last Jedi’

    Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
    Image: Lucasfilm

    Carrie Fisher’s final Star Wars movie will see General Leia Organa passing on the torch to a new leader of the Resistance.

    Between The Force Awakens and the bits we’ve already seen of The Last Jedi, you may have gathered that Leia and Poe Dameron (the Resistance pilot played by Oscar Isaac) are close.

    But it turns out their bond runs deeper than we knew.

    Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Isaac described Poe as a kind of “surrogate son” for Leia and someone she wants to groom for leadership.

    “Poes arc is one of evolving from a heroic soldier to a seasoned leader, to see beyond the single-mindedness of winning the battle to the larger picture of the future of the galaxy,” said Isaac.

    He describes Leia’s guidance as “tough love” meant to instill “wisdom and clarity” in the hotshot pilot.

    I honestly don’t know which one to be more jealous of here.

    Image: Lucasfilm

    The characters’ deep bond appears to run parallel to the friendship that the actors formed off-screen.

    Isaac shared this memory of his time on set with Fisher:

    One of my favorite things that would happen from time to time on set would be when Carrie would sing old songs. Whenever that would happen I would offer her my hand and we would waltz around the set on a starship, in a Rebel base, on an alien planet, and she would sing and we would dance. So surreal and beautiful to think about now. For all of her delicious, wicked humor and fiery energy she also had such sweet grace. I miss her dearly.

    So do we, Oscar. So do we.

    We salute you, General.

    Image: Lucasfilm

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    Reboots and revivals are getting out of hand, and only big stars can save us all

    Image: mashable composite/nbc

    It’s 2017 so everywhere you turn there’s a film reboot or a beloved TV series getting revived. The latest is the forthcoming 12-episode coda to Will & Grace from NBC of which a second season has already been ordered, because in the Peak TV era, more is definitely more.

    In an interview with Deadline, NBC President Bob Greenblatt detailed some of his other burgeoning revival plans, specifically mentioning his desire to bring back 30 Rock or The Office.

    Twitter lit up, but let’s shut this down before speculation really begins. This is a terrible no good very bad idea and right now, there’s only one thing stopping this bad idea train from leaving the tracks: Stars who at least for the moment know better.

    It’s every actor’s dream to embody an iconic television or film character. Those opportunities are rare, so it makes sense to cling to them when they do serendipitously arrive.

    But there is that adage about beating a dead horse. Timing must be ripe for a revival; the audience must want it or feel its relevance. When Netflix picked up Arrested Development in 2013, it was a triumphant swan song for a series which, a decade previously, was tragically canceled and years ahead of its time. This was around the same time Disney began production on Girl Meets World, a strategic followup to Boy Meets World with just the right amount of cast overlap and a shifted target audience.

    The chances of Greenblatt or one of his colleagues at the top passing on a reboot in the interest of artistic integrity are, quite frankly, laughable.

    Revivals can work. The 2015 Netflix revival of Wet Hot American Summer reunited the cult classic’s hilarious cast to much success and critical acclaim. It was so unexpectedly not-terrible that a second season was ordered…and fell flat this past weekend.

    There’s the frequent refrain that actors and producers are in it for the money. While that may be true and they’re often promised exorbitant paychecks, let’s gut-check this. No A-list celeb needs that extra money. The cast of Will & Grace will be living off residuals for years. Actors love to joke about how they’re unemployed between jobs, but when your last paycheck was for millions, let’s be real: You don’t actually need to work again in your life. You work because you want to, and you take a reboot to kickstart your career and make yourself relevant again.

    Revivals are an almost foolproof financial plan, which is why networks and studios bet on them more and more frequently. The chances of Greenblatt or one of his colleagues at the top passing on a reboot of The Office in the interests of artistic integrity are, quite frankly, laughable.

    So the onus of assessing what fits a reboot and what must be left alone falls to those who allegedly do care about the aforementioned integrity: Artists. Tina Fey told Greenblatt that more 30 Rock might not make sense; Aaron Sorkin said that while he’d love to revisit The West Wing, the timing isn’t right. Greg Daniels speaks for The Office, which was content to do two seasons without Steve Carell but shouldn’t dare touch a revival without him.

    We thank you, stars who know better. Stay strong out there. We may say we want more Dunder-Mifflin, but all that would really accomplish is make us long for the original (the early days, natch). Say no to more reboots, and leave well enough alone.

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